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Celtics legend Tom Heinsohn, champion as player and coach, dies at 86

Tom Heinsohn reports for his first season as Celtics coach in 1969.Dan Goshtigian/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Tom Heinsohn, the Celtics’ accomplished and animated renaissance man who was involved in all 17 of the franchise’s National Basketball Association titles as a player, coach, and commentator, has died, the team said Tuesday. He was 86.

Mr. Heinsohn had multiple illnesses, including diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, Celtics spokesman Jeff Twiss told the New York Times.

On the parquet, Mr. Heinsohn was a no-holds-barred net-ripper, an irrepressible fixture alongside stars Bob Cousy and Bill Russell in the Celtics’ golden age of the late 1950s and 1960s. Mr. Heinsohn, who died Monday, collected eight championship rings in nine seasons as a player and was named an All-Star six times on his way to the Basketball Hall of Fame.


His retired number 15 hangs from the rafters at TD Garden.

“We were basketball’s Cosa Nostra,” said Mr. Heinsohn, who also coached the Celtics to their 1974 and 1976 titles. “We believed it was Our Thing.”

To a later generation of fans, he was known as a voluble television analyst, his passion, exuberance, and candor making him both a colorful and controversial personality.

“One thing I learned a long time ago is that there’s no control over what people think of you,” said Mr. Heinsohn, who once appeared in a famous Miller Lite commercial showing NBA referee Mendy Rudolph thumbing him out of a bar. “Some people said of me, ‘Hey, it’s great to see somebody with enthusiasm.' Others said I was a screaming ass.

"And all I can say is, ‘That’s me, pal.’ I’m involved, and when I’m involved, I let it all hang out. I don’t worry about my image.”

In a statement, the Celtics said, "For all of his accomplishments as a player, coach, and broadcaster, it is Tommy’s rich personality that defined the man. A loving father, grandfather, and husband. A talented painter and a lively golf partner. Unofficial mentor to decades of Celtics coaches and players. A frequent constructive critic of referees. Originator of the most ‘Celtic stat’ of them all, The Tommy Point. And a boundless love for all things Boston Celtics, a passion which he shared with fans over 64 years.


“As long as there are the Boston Celtics, Tommy’s spirit will remain alive.”

The Celtics ownership group, headed by Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca, added to the team’s statement, saying, “This is a devastating loss. Tommy was the ultimate Celtic. For the past 18 years, our ownership group has relied hugely on Tommy’s advice and insights and have reveled in his hundreds of stories about Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, and how the Celtics became a dynasty. He will be remembered forever.”

“Tommy Heinsohn is certainly a legend of the game,” said John L. Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame. “He had the tough and gritty heart of a winner, as evidenced by his eight titles in nine seasons as a player. But what really set him apart was his desire to improve and lead those around him toward a common goal.”

Making an early impression

Thomas William Heinsohn, who was born Aug. 26, 1934, grew up in Union City, N.J., where he attended St. Michael’s High School before enrolling at Holy Cross.

“My mother bought me a brand-new suit for going away to college,” he recalled. “We were poor, but she wanted me to have that. It was a powder-blue suit with pegged pants — you know, skinny at the bottom. I think I made quite an impression with that.”


Mr. Heinsohn made a more enduring impression on the court, where he was the Crusaders’ captain and a first-team All-American. He scored a school-record 51 points against Boston College at the Garden and helped lead the Crusaders to the National Invitation Tournament title in 1954 as well as two NCAA postseason bids.

Before the Celtics selected him as their territorial choice in the 1956 draft, Mr. Heinsohn considered playing for the Amateur Athletic Union team in Peoria, Ill., and trying out for that year’s Olympics in Melbourne, where he would have performed alongside future Boston teammates Russell and K.C. Jones on the US gold-medal team.

Mr. Heinsohn (left) in a 1959 game against the Syracuse Nationals.Jack Sheahan/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Instead, he signed with the Celtics and played an invaluable starting role in their title run in 1957. In Game 7 of the final series against the St. Louis Hawks, Mr. Heinsohn scored 37 points and grabbed 23 rebounds, leading the Celtics to a double-overtime triumph. It was the franchise’s first NBA championship.

“I was just able to play footloose and fancy-free,” said Mr. Heinsohn, who was named the league’s Rookie of the Year. “The guys who had been here all that time trying to win a championship, Cousy and Bill Sharman, they were so anxious they couldn’t get out of their own way that day. I just went out and played.”

Mr. Heinsohn would score 12,194 points during his career, averaging nearly 19 a game despite his habit of smoking cigarettes in the locker room before games and during halftime.


“If Heinsohn wanted to kill himself, that was OK with me,” coach Red Auerbach said years later. “As long as it didn’t make him run any slower.”

Intensely competitive

Mr. Heinsohn, who was nicknamed “Tommy Gun'' and “Ack-Ack,‘' was the team’s designated marksman who needed no encouragement to aim and fire.

“Give Tommy credit for one thing,” Cousy, the Celtics’ playmaking wizard, once remarked. “He never shoots without the ball.”

Shooting was Mr. Heinsohn’s job, Auerbach said, while observing that his teammates might like to hold the ball once in a while. Mr. Heinsohn, who performed in an era without the long-range 3-point shot, employed an arc-less jumper and a deft hook but also could storm and slash his way to the basket.

“He’d knock his grandmother down for 2 points,” teammate Frank Ramsey observed.

Mr. Heinsohn, who stood 6 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 220 pounds, was the “volunteer” who was tapped to impede Wilt Chamberlain, the 7-foot titan, in order to let Cousy and Russell operate freely.

“It worked for a while, but Wilt caught on and he didn’t like it,” Mr. Heinsohn said. “Finally he said, ‘You do that again, I’m going to knock you on your ass.’ And I said, ‘Bring your lunch.’ And sure enough, the next time he knocked me across the floor.”

Mr. Heinsohn, who was Auerbach’s favored target during locker-room lectures, was accustomed to absorbing abuse for the team’s benefit.


“Red would say Tommy, you gotta do this, Tommy you gotta do that — and that goes for you, too, Russell,” Mr. Heinsohn said.

Mr. Heinsohn (center), with Celtics owner Irv Levin (left) and general manager Red Auerbach in 1977.Frank O'Brien/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Mr. Heinsohn took the most flak for his role as president of the players' union, whose members threatened not to play in the 1964 All-Star Game at the Garden unless the NBA owners agreed to establish a pension plan.

“Heinsohn is the No. 1 heel in all my association with sports,” said infuriated Celtics owner Walter Brown, who considered Mr. Heinsohn disloyal.

The owners and players came to terms before tipoff, and after Mr. Heinsohn had helped produce another title three months later in the Garden, Brown reversed himself.

“No living thing ­— horse, dog, or human — ever gave so much competitively as Tommy contributed to the Celtics,” he declared.

Transition to coaching

Mr. Heinsohn had one more season left, his career truncated at age 30 by a foot injury. He retired in 1965 with one final ring, which Mr. Heinsohn felt was diminished because he observed the final minutes of the concluding victory against the Lakers from the bench.

“It was heartbreaking for me to watch Willie Naulls playing in my position and the Celtics putting away their seventh straight title without me,” he wrote in “Heinsohn, Don’t You Ever Smile?” with co-author Leonard Lewin.

Auerbach, who stepped down as coach after the 1966 season, offered him the job, but Mr. Heinsohn refused.

“I couldn’t handle Russell,” he told Auerbach. “Russell would never play for me. I couldn’t motivate him.”

So Auerbach named Russell as player-coach, and Mr. Heinsohn returned to what had been his offseason job: selling insurance. But when Russell retired after three seasons, Mr. Heinsohn succeeded him.

Mr. Heinsohn's animated style made him a fan favorite as a broadcaster.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Selling insurance, he said, wasn’t nearly as fulfilling as life on the court had been.

“I had become accustomed to immediate results — in 48 minutes I either won or lost,” he said.

What he inherited in 1969 was a massive reconstruction project on Causeway Street, and that season’s record (34-48) was the club’s worst since 1950. But with proven veterans in John Havlicek, Tom Sanders, and Don Nelson, and talented young players Dave Cowens, Jo Jo White, and Don Chaney, Mr. Heinsohn established an up-tempo running style that left rivals legless and breathless. After producing a turnaround in his second campaign, he was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year.

“I had a sense of watching something I’d created work,” he said.

The Celtics went on to win the crown in two of the following three years, but when the team sagged during the 1977-78 season, Mr. Heinsohn, who’d signed a multiyear contract extension that spring, was let go after nine years, 427 victories, and six playoff appearances, He was replaced by Sanders in what Auerbach said was “the hardest thing I ever did.”

Mr. Heinsohn (“I’m not afraid of the world”) was philosophical about his dismissal.

“I’ve had the roller-coaster ride,” he said. “I’ve been in Playland and went up and down and I’ve looked in all the mirrors. I’ve done all of that. And I’ve never looked back on anything.”

Creative with words and paint

Mr. Heinsohn continued his involvement with the Celtics as the color commentator on the team’s TV broadcasts with play-by-play announcer Mike Gorman. They would deliver the longest continuous on-air collaboration of any professional sports team.

“Roughly 2800 times I sat down with Tommy to broadcast a game. Every time it was special,” Gorman wrote on Twitter.

Mr. Heinsohn’s full-throated commentary, with its hometown inflection, was just shy of participatory. The man who’d been the league’s foremost coffee-shop philosopher during his coaching days — his references ranging from Romeo and Juliet to Henry Clay to Ebenezer Scrooge to Bigfoot — was a master of creating word pictures on the air.

“Tommy doesn’t really do color,” Gorman observed. “In his heart, he’s still coaching the Celtics and he always will be. It doesn’t matter who the coach is, and it’s no disrespect to the coach. This always will be Tommy’s team. Tommy will be coaching this team till he takes his final breath. If it was possible to still be playing for this team, he would be.”

Throughout his life, he also would display a gift for creating pictures on canvas.

Painting had been one of Mr. Heinsohn’s favorite pastimes since childhood, when he was disappointed to receive a baseball glove for a Christmas gift instead of a set of pastels.

“When I first started, it was something I could do by myself,” said Mr. Heinsohn, who once fantasized about retiring to Gloucester to paint. “It really is like a friend. It keeps me involved in something. It’s soothing. It’s fun. It’s a social exercise. It’s an intellectual exercise.”

In addition to his athletic and broadcasting career, Mr. Heinsohn was an accomplished painter.handout

Mr. Heinsohn, a frequent exhibitor who sold some of his paintings and gave away others, was partial to landscapes, many of which he discovered on road trips across the country.

Once in his Cleveland hotel room, which looked out on a brick wall, Mr. Heinsohn sketched a still life of his boots on an end table as snow fell outside.

“You’ve got to keep doing it,” he said. “Sports is an art. Painting is an art. It’s a matter of mastering the fundamentals and pumping your creativity into it.”

Mr. Heinsohn’s most cherished portrait was the one of his second wife, Helen, whom he called “the redhead from Needham’’ and who died in 2008 after a six-year battle with cancer.

“My joke was always: ‘Nothing can happen to me because Tommy won’t be able to find his socks,' ” she once said.